The Lost City (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

I was wondering when Brad Pitt would show up. Judging from the trailer it would be close to the end when he leaps, long hair blowing wild, to save the day. I didn’t expect him to show up almost right from the start. Nor, I have to say, that before the halfway mark – SPOILER ALERT – his brains would be splattered all over Channing Taum’s face. For me, in that one scene, the film never recovered, despite a bizarre post-credit sequence where it transpired that Pitt had in fact survived having his brains blown out all over Tatum’s face.

But let’s recap. Grieving widow romantic novelist Loretta (Sandra Bullock) whose fans prefer muscular cover model Alan Chaning Tatum) is kidnapped by over-the-top nutjob Abigail (yep!) Fairfax (Daniel Ratcliffe) to recover lost treasure from an island in the middle of nowhere. Alan, assuming that he must act like her fictional hero Dash, enlists Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) to rescue her. Pitt, having lost none of the athleticism he displayed in Troy (2004), does just that but in the course of the escape – SPOILER ALERT AGAIN – he gets his brains splattered out.

Neither Loretta and Alan are really cut out for escapist adventure and spend most of the time making a hash of it, which is a nice twist on the genre. There’s not really enough chemistry between Bullock and Tatum, both playing personas we’ve seen before. There’s some cute stuff, snuggling up in a hammock, Alan discovering some survival skills and eventually she stops her endless whining and springs into proper heroine mode and the climax includes a romantic surprise when she finally decodes the meaning of the archaeological mystery. But the idea of him being allergic to water seems extreme and it makes even less sense – except as an excuse to show his bum and make a lame joke about the size of his manhood – for him to be only one covered in leeches.

But we hardly need a volcano simmering in the background especially as those special effects are poor. The idea of a deadline for this lackadaisical pair is a joke and reeks of writers struggling for a third act. Without the impending explosion Pitt could just have suffered a broken leg and been left behind; if he miraculously appeared for the coda in crutches that would have been perfectly acceptable, his superhuman skills already demonstrated. And there’s only so much humor you can stretch out of stretching a flimsy dress. And especially idiotic is that they require pushy agent Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to come to the rescue – the ending is singularly poorly worked-out unlike Uncharted where it all made logical sense. The problem is that everyone in his picture is just dumb without enough of the dumb and dumber-ness to make it an effective comedy.

The surprising part is that with all these misfiring elements and setting aside the brain-splatter the movie works well enough. There’s none of the personality clash – both irritate the other rather than hate them – that marked out Romancing the Stone (1984) and there’s not really enough derring-do but generally it jigs along and both Tatum and Bullock have strong enough fan bases. There’s a determinedly feel-good factor at play.

In particular it’s a welcome return to the big screen for Sandra Bullock (The Heat, 2013) who has somewhat ill-advisedly become the Netflix Queen. A movie star for nearly 30 years she has been very adept at choosing roles and switching her screen persona and her brand of awkward/prickly geek still works. Channing Tatum (Dog, 2022) always plays against his physique, strong but vulnerable and here he adds caring to the formula. Daniel Ratcliffe (Escape from Pretoria, 2020) doesn’t do much more than rant and look manic – Harry Potter in a hissy fit.

Could easily be renamed Search for a Lost Genre as the rom-com struggles to provide partnerships to match Richard Gere-Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan and no one has come close to repeating the legendary Tracy-Hepburn dynamic. And while we’re at it, I’m not sure by what authority Loretta concludes that (beyond a swipe at Indiana Jones) snakes have no logical place in ancient tombs.

Despite my nitpicking, they do make a good team and it’s enjoyable enough.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

The Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers or Wages of Fear Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco (Crack in the Mirror, 1960) had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen in this particular role and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness. It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner). David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike (Shake Hands with the Devil, 1959) as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by. After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness.

There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts (and Boyd was in reality saved from drowning by his co-star). In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party. Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure.  Their plans are further hit by sabotage by the German Kaltenberg (Gregory Ratoff in his final role).

While some of the posters highlight the river crossing, others focus on the cliff-top sequences.

This was Boyd’s bid for stardom. Five years into a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, he had worked his way up the ranks at that studio to become male lead to top-billed females like Susan Hayward (A Woman Obsessed, 1959) and Hope Lange (The Best of Everything, 1959) before his career received a massive boost after a loan-out deal to MGM for Ben-Hur (1959). He might have been hotter yet had Fox not abandoned its first Rouben Mamoulian-directed version of Cleopatra in which he played Mark Anthony, a role that later brought Richard Burton worldwide fame and a new wife. Boyd would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star.

One of the great Hollywood what-ifs – how would Boyd’s career have developed
if he had followed up “Ben-Hur” with “Cleopatra.”

Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959), Crack in the Mirror (1960) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help for the African sequences from Elmo Williams (The Longest Day, 1962) – the nerve-wracking clifftop sequences and river crossing were actually shot in France – it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.  Filmed in CinemaScope, this is one of the films of the era which does justice to the widescreen. As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) ***

Forget swashbuckling shenanigans in the Captain Blood (1935) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) vein, this has more in keeping with Lord of the Flies (1963) as a bunch of third-rate pirates get more than they bargained for after kidnapping a bunch of English children.

The pirates are clever enough when required, using the ruse of pretending to be a ship in distress to defeat an enemy, capable of torturing a captured captain into revealing concealed treasure, or hiding from pursuit by disguising the masts with palm leaves, but generally short on intelligence. That the kidnapping is unintentional, no sensible pirate wanting the British Navy breathing down its neck, gives an indication of the mentality of Captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his mate Zac (James Coburn). Nor are the children Disney-cute and far from being petrified they see it as a great adventure while the crew are superstitious about having the youngsters aboard.

The kids have great fun running rings round the pirates, stealing Chavez’s hat, climbing the rigging, and ringing the bell, while turning round the ship’s figurehead provokes another bout of superstition. When the kids are eventually imprisoned in a rowboat to prevent upsetting the crew they still manage to do so by playing a game that the crew take too seriously.

An attempt to abandon the children on the island of Tampico fails when the oldest boy John (Martin Amis) dies by accident. The children are unperturbed by his death, the only question raised is who can have his blanket. Much to his surprise Chavez discovers he has a strong paternal side, protective when he discovers that one of his captives is a young woman rather than a child, and going against the wishes of his crew when he tends to a knife wound on Emily (Deborah Baxter).

The children are far more grown-up and matter-of-fact than the childish crew, consumed by superstition, and Chavez, consumed by emotion. Although there is considerable comedy to be had from the children’s endeavors, it’s largely an adult film about children. In general, they don’t react the way they would in a Disney picture, nor in the manner which many adults would expect. The sexual tension of the book is considerably underplayed. But the fact that the adults are brought into harm’s way by sheer folly, and their reactions to life are essentially childish, creates a contrast with the more savage attitudes of the children. Emily essentially exposes Chavez’s guilty conscience.

While there is ambivalence aplenty, the depths the book explored go unexplored here, much to the benefit of the picture. The movie dances a tightrope as the children who would otherwise expect to trust an adult grow to learn how to distrust, a rather sharper lesson in growing up than they might have anticipated from their middle-class innocent lives.

Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, 1955) excels in ensuring the tightrope remains in place while taking advantage of the opportunity for comedy, the realization that this adventure is far from fun only becoming gradually apparent.

Anthony Quinn (Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) reins in his tendency to ham things up, and his development from unbridled pirate to responsible adult is an interesting one. James Coburn (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, 1966) reins in the flashing teeth and reveals a more ruthless side than his captain anticipated. Deborah Baxter (The Wind and the Lion, 1975) is easily the pick of the kids although future novelist Martin Amis with his trademark sneer gives her a run for her money.

Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966) appears as a brothel madam, Nigel Davenport  (Sebastian, 1968) as the father and Gert Frobe (Goldfinger, 1964) as the captured captain. The cast also includes Dennis Price (Tamahine, 1963) and Vivienne Ventura (Battle Beneath the Earth, 1967).

Stanley Mann (Woman of Straw, 1964), Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, 1983) and Denis Cannan (Woman of Straw) wrote the screenplay based on the celebrated Richard Hughes novel.

Uncharted (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Hugely enjoyable fast-paced romp with clues, ancient maps, sunken treasure, double-cross upon double-cross, action and twists all the way in what could be the next major franchise. Barman Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) teams up somewhat unwillingly with  unscrupulous Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Chloe Frazer (Sophie Ali) to find $5 billion in gold. In their way: the ruthless Santiago Moncado (Antonio Banderas), henchperson Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and assorted roughnecks.

Confession: I’ve no idea what computer game sparked this movie so come with no preconceptions. History lesson: the gold was lost by Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, the first guy to sail round the world, while Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to do the same.

Two outstanding action sequences top and tail the movie, the first a battle in a cargo plane that is dumping its cargo, the second, just astonishing in its virtuosity, a duel between airborne shipwrecks. In between are a scramble in an art gallery and a roofotop chase. And to keep the audience on its toes all kinds of relics are brought into play as well as hidden tunnels, churches and chambers complete with the usual Indiana Jones-style booby traps, never mind a ton of bullets, and a bunch of clues to be deciphered from maps and walls not to mention postcards and trees. Part of the fun is that the gang don’t get it right all the time with alarming consequences.

It’s all done with such verve and although it’s certainly a close relative to the Indiana Jones series it’s minus their mystical nonsense while the characters certainly are not called upon to do good for their country or save the world from any dictatorships. The guys just want to make money. And what’s wrong with that? It lends the movie a certain solidity. And the fact that none of the characters trusts the others ensures that the status quo never remains quo for long and that swift change is going to be the order of the day.

Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021) bulks up and seizes the opportunity to become a major star outside the comic book hero. Too often franchise pictures have produced wallpaper stars, attracting audiences in the tight confines of their multiverses but failing to add any box office muscle to other projects. This character proves an inspired choice. Holland gets to be athletic, as well as the young guy making his bones in a cut-throat (pardon the pun) world, holds up his side in the edgy banter with Wahlberg, and rounds out his personality by being a prize thief and vulnerable guy who misses his lost older brother.  

Mark Wahlberg (Infinite, 2021) hasn’t had this good a role since Patriot’s Day (2016) and since he’s not relied upon to carry the picture can get up to all sorts of shenanigans, which he’s usually knee-deep in, much to his apparent enjoyment. Antonio Banderas (Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, 2021) for once has a legitimate reason to use his Spanish in a Hollywood movie.

Sophie Ali (Truth or Dare, 2018) and Tati Gabrielle in her movie debut rock as female actioners, extremely convincing as mean gals, and should have been shuttled into any number of female-led action movies of the last few years that failed to bring the requisite bite. Both muscle their way into the game and refuse to be muscled out or, by dint of romantic entanglement, lose their edge. There’s a nice cameo – and a running joke – by Steven Waddington (The Imitation Game, 2014) as an incomprehensible Scotsman.

Reuben Fleischer has taken the directorial cojones he displayed in Gangster Squad (2013) and Venom (2018) and squeezed the life out of them to keep this little number zipping along, scarcely stopping to take a breath, never finding itself in a dead end, and holding enough marvel back to pull off  the audacious ending of the flying shipwrecks, on a par with any image Steven Spielberg ever pulled out of his locker. Rafe Judkins, another movie debutante, and the partnership of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, 2008)  assembled the screenplay from the Playstation game.

As I said I’ve no idea what were the ingredients in the original game and whether the writers have played fast and loose with the concept but all I can say is it’s a helluva movie.

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